From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Comb

People always say stories are true stories, and I suppose they believe it, often enough; this one, though, is true—true as true can be, as my mother used to say. Cross my heart and hope to die, a child says. They do, in the end, all hope to die. Nobody wants to be the moon’s immortal lover, who lives on, thousands of years beyond his youth, a husk of a man: Tithonus, the grasshopper, who rasps in the weeds when the moonlight touches him. Or perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps most people don’t know that a fate can feel more alien than death.

This tale recounts events that occurred some time ago—it might as well be a century, it seems so long past—when I was living in the pretty hill town of Fincastle, Virginia. Before these things happened, I had been married for several years; my husband left me to chase after another woman. The next year he was sorry, but I refused to let him come home, and after the divorce I had what is commonly called a nervous breakdown.

I was very different then from what I am now. In fact, I feel myself to be so very far from that person that I see her as a second and much younger woman. Poor child! Even after coming home from a “rest cure” in the mountains, she didn’t feel any self-pity; she was too engrossed in herself to feel sorry. She wore her hair long and tangled; her eyes were green, with explosive specks of gold around the pupil. She was slim and small and serious, with a rose-colored scar along her wrist where she had tried to bleed to death. Two boys had found her lying in a dirt lane leading into the woods, and it was lucky for her—or unlucky, as she would have thought—that they were chasing after a dog and stumbled across her instead. Lucky, too, that they were Scouts with badges and medals and pins: they leaped on her with glad cries, binding the arm with torn strips of shirt and splinting it for good measure with a stick they had been throwing for the dog.

So that was she, staring up at the sky with eyes like glass.

I feel sad for her, though she would never have felt that way; she believed that one must be proud and cold in the face of what can’t be changed. She was a regular player queen, with tragedy in her heart. Outwardly, we look very much the same. But I want to tell her that some day things will make more sense, that after many mistakes, one day she will wake up knowing what matters and what is right and wrong. Such border crossings aren’t uncommon.

So she, or I, possessed the unwanted treasure of an entire summer with nothing to do but eat and sleep and walk in the fields and on the hills. My former work and companions had vanished, swept away in the aftermath to the divorce. In a year or two, I promised myself, I would find other pursuits, more meaningful than the old ones that had failed me. I didn’t want to visit my father’s house, didn’t wish to see people. If somebody stopped by, I might go out for a walk—would go, very fast, along the creek, not talking much, picking up fossils at the diggings in the bank. I liked fossils: the old dead life of things. They seemed both profound and simple. I felt a kinship with the leaden press of them against my palms. They were clams, mostly, some sort of mollusk with now and then a confetti of twisted shapes.

Once a friend of my husband’s told me their names, but the words skittered and fell through my mind as if through a colander with holes much too large. I couldn’t meet his eyes. The syllables, each a solid Latin weight, tumbled apart. They, also, were a kind of fossil.

Usually I hid when people came to call. Afterward, I would peep out of the curtains to see who it had been. Sometimes I didn’t even bother to do that. I was never sorry, never cared about missing any of them. I knew the way Fincastle would be gossiping about my “illness”: one brown study or willful mood and I’d be branded as a madwoman. But I refused to occupy a niche in the public mind—let the village idiot hold that pedestal. I rarely thought much about my husband any more; I had talked him away in my rest cure in the mountains, and he visited me only as a mood utterly black. Though I knew what it meant, I wasn’t interested in naming that state of mind, just as I wasn’t interested in knowing the Latin names of things that had lived eons ago. Pieces of me were lifeless and couldn’t strike light any more than if they had been two stones in a toddler’s hands—two fossil mollusks clapped together to make a noise and nothing else.

When I slipped away from town, I liked to walk in the woods. I stayed away from the streets where I had once strolled, greeting my neighbors. When the rector who lived on the corner came to call, I ducked low to the floor and held still, hiding behind a chair. I had nothing to say, and so I said nothing. After a while, anyone will give up and wander off, especially if there’s no light on in the house. I went to bed when it got dark, so I never needed lamps.

My method was to creep out of the back door a little after noon, not long after I woke, taking a handful of dry cereal and a bottle of water with me. I was hardly ever hungry in those days.

My best cure for brooding too much was to traipse on the hills until I grew tired. Sometimes I’d drop asleep on a sunny slope and wake when the shadows touched my face. I liked feeling the sun on my shoulder blades, my hair turning as hot as if it were metal and not merely soft and human—cuttable, like the rest of me.

It was on one of these purposeless outings that I first saw him.

I never expected or wanted to see anybody when I was out. I was intent on walking off something. That was all. Occasionally a detail of landscape gave me reason to pause, but not often. A flower, a stone, an oddity: objects on the ground could attract my notice. It seemed to me that some day I might be able to gather these objects together and make a new world for myself—a fanciful idea that led to nothing. I seldom looked at the views that were all around me. They were too dominant, too far away from a downward gaze.

Still, I saw him.

I caught sight of a figure standing in the edge of the trees, and, as I passed by, his eyes caught on mine and then broke away. I had no time to register anything except that he was young-looking, with something golden about his skin and hair.

It gave me a flicker of unease—the reflex of old habits of carefulness—to encounter someone so far from town.

I shrugged. What difference did it make? And thought no more.

Yet that was not the last time I saw him, for I glimpsed the stranger less than a week later, near the same spot, while I was sitting on the remains of a stile. The second time he rode a horse, and a dog ran at his heels. He nodded at me.

Something in the encounter penetrated my absence: I thought it curious to meet a man on horseback in such a retired place. The moment had the air of being plucked out of time, because there was something courtly about his manner. A slight bow? Some old-fashioned cut to his clothing? The hound and horse were black and gleaming, like creatures from a backcountry ballad. When a crow sliced across the sky, I thought: It should be midnight, with ice sheathing the trees. As they passed, I saw that the mare’s haunches were splotched, as if by moonlight.

After that meeting, I didn’t cross that piece of hillside any more, going out of my way to seek places where I had never been.

Nevertheless, it was on one of these alien walks that he first spoke to me.

I had wandered into a little valley. The landscape was deserted, with nothing but a stream swirling between two hills to make a sound. I felt sleepy and thought of taking a nap, but the site seemed so very still and so unfrequented by birds that I changed my mind. An oak stood near the stream, its canopy more than half-killed by mistletoe. Only a few green leaves dangled from a branch. This ancient was a wonderful-looking tree, even as it stood dying—perhaps because it was dying. The scene reminded me of Caspar David Friedrich’s Germanic visions with their decayed boles, processions of monks, ruins, and strange encounters in the sublime. A few years before, I had taken a fancy to Friedrich’s paintings and now owned a shelf of books devoted to illustrating and discussing his work. In more energetic times, I had gone on pilgrimage to see a few of the pictures in museums—what is real being so much more alive than a copy.

The romantic tree had caught my attention so completely that I didn’t hear him coming down the hillside. When he spoke, I started and had the impulse to flee. I suppose it showed on my face.

“Wait! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“I’m not—”

“No, of course not. Tired, maybe.”

Not frightened, I told myself, not frightened or even tired, no. Yet light-headedness came over me, and my pulse was jittery under the scar at my wrist as if the blood were once more seeking a way out. Specks of darkness swarmed before my eyes, and then cleared slowly. He was still standing near me, one hand in the air. Perhaps he had thought that I might fall.

There! I had looked someone full in the face, the first such gaze in a long time. And I was surprised to find that I could still be pleased by another human being’s countenance—so pleased that I felt a touch of unreality and wondered whether I had made him up. The eyes were hazel, and nearness showed that he was altogether rather uniform in color, being a golden brown all over—face, arms, shoulder-length hair. The effect was curious. My eyes slid to his fingers. They were large, with pronounced knuckles, knotty and older-looking than the rest of him. Otherwise, he appeared close to my own age. I noticed a comb in his hand.

“Sit,” he told me, gesturing toward a flat stone at the brink of the stream.

I couldn’t think what to do.

“Go on,” he added; “I won’t hurt you.”

So I sat. Today I sigh at that girl! Why didn’t she cry out or tell him to leave? Why didn’t she fling herself away? He could have stopped her, of course, but I don’t think he would have.

After I had settled myself, he knelt on the grass beside the stone. He didn’t begin with the comb but with his fingers. Did I say my hair was uncombed? Had been untended for a long time? Mats that were halfway to dreadlocks hung below my shoulders. Thread by thread, he tugged at the knots. Once he plucked a dried ox-eye daisy from somewhere near the crown of my head. I could smell his skin, the musk of sweat mingled with thyme. At one point I turned to look at the lowered face, the fingers unweaving my hair. For an instant, he shifted his gaze from the task to my eyes. What mood I was in, I hardly know. Under the rose-colored scar at my wrist, the blood flew like a ribbon being unreeled.

He leaned close to untangle a snag above my ear; his breath grazed my neck. The tick of the pulse there felt magnified under his eyes.

The breeze pushed at some loosely balled hair, snared in the grass. Have you ever seen flax pounded and threshed and dragged through hetchels? When wind nudges the clouds of leftover filaments, they roll and catch on the barn floor or on stems in the yard. In an era when everything had its uses, they were gathered for spinning unless birds dared the barnyard and stole some for their nests. But my hair was knotted beyond use, and it was far from flaxen.

When his hands had made the orbit of my head, the stranger reached for the comb. Wielded, the wood shed a fragrance, not quite gardenia—more delicate, less cloying. Afterward he brought water from the stream in his cupped hands and moistened my hair, combing for a long time until once more I began to be sleepy.

“I’ve always loved this shade of red.” His voice sounded low, as if coming from a distance. “I knew it would be wavy when untangled and dried.”

His face was near mine. For some moments, I imagined this scene: that I would move toward him, and that he would kiss me. But a cloud passed over the sky, and my thoughts unaccountably drifted away to my ex-husband and how he had betrayed me and wanted to return when it was too late, my heart dead and only grief still springing up with life. When I came back to myself, he was gone. The comb remained, prettily carved from an unfamiliar tree and inset with flowers. Again I felt bewilderment: had it all been a fancy? I remembered the rest cure in the mountains, how my father had given me a queer, puzzled look when he came to visit, saying that I didn’t seem entirely present and accounted for. But I had been given my release, my papers signed, and here was a comb that could not be explained away. The heart of each flower appeared to be a chip of ruby; I couldn’t identify the wood. Though the grain suggested tiger maple, I had never met with any tree so green at its core. Relaxing, my hand disclosed a row of tooth marks stamped into my palm. Yes, the comb was an undreamt thing, with heft and texture. I hadn’t made it up. I jumped to my feet, scanning the forest and the fields. The day was perfectly clear; I could see hills and a cluster or two of distant houses. Until that moment, I had forgotten how lovely the Virginia hill country could be. But I couldn’t catch a glimpse of—what was he called? I’d let a man rake his fingers through my hair and never asked his name.

* * *

The next morning I failed to use the comb, but I looked in the glass and was not displeased. My hair seemed to have grown since the day prior and to be more luxuriant and floating. I inhaled the scent of the greenwood comb, feeling a moment’s giddiness. The sprinkle of freckles on the bridge of my nose, the gold brows and lashes, the mouth that my ex-husband had found lush and sensual when he first met me: I stared at the image as if at a second person. It had been a long time since I had stopped to inspect myself in a mirror.

I bathed and put on a clean white dress. That summer I wore nothing but white. I had five or six old-fashioned cotton dresses with tucks and white embroidery, and I wore them constantly. Perhaps it was a form of mourning. No one had died and deserved black, but I might have been marking the length of a sorrow. Or perhaps I wanted to return to the innocence of childhood, before my husband Hammett had wronged me.

Lashing my hair back with a ribbon, I left for my walk, the comb safe in my pocket. The more I had examined it, the more I had admired the workmanship in the inlay of flowers and tendrils, set in an exotic-seeming wood.

I rambled through places that had imperceptibly become favorites; eventually I found myself in the valley by the stream. I skirted the margin of the water, searching for signs of the stranger, but there was nothing. The Friedrich oak with its few leaves and burden of mistletoe seemed as shrouded in secrecy as before. Slowly I inspected the tree line; I found no sign of a path or any sort of habitation. I considered leaving the comb beside the brook. In the end, I carried it home, and I didn’t return to the spot for some days.

In that time, I began to wash my clothes and hair daily, though I still kept to myself. What would it mean if I never saw him again? The glimpse of his face, chin tilted downward and eyes on my hair, haunted my imaginings. My neighbors would have been shocked to know that I had allowed a stranger to touch me so intimately. Yet he hadn’t so much as brushed my shoulder with his hand! He had been scrupulously careful not to offend. I thought many things about the man; some of my speculations were monstrous. Yet when I remembered his eyes meeting mine, I couldn’t believe any wickedness of him.

After a week had passed, I took to making daily visits to the hillside above the stream, climbing to where I could survey the valley. The old pleasure in landscape, come back to me at last, made me feel more content than I had been in many months. Now and then I would haul the comb through my hair. It was lengthening, faster than was usual in the summertime, and I suspected that it might mean that I was returning to health and getting over my wrecked marriage. In the worst of my depression, strands had fallen whenever I washed my hair. The next time I bathed, I would find that a delicate red bird’s nest had collected at the drain. The woven cup would be dry and puffy, easily detached and tossed from the window. These days I seldom saw even a single thread on my shoulder. While I combed, I would forget the dark thoughts linked to my married life and enter a state that felt peaceful and empty. Once or twice I fell asleep in the sun but never woke to find the stranger calling me by name—I half wanted to hear it, until I remembered that he couldn’t possibly know mine, just as I didn’t know his.

One afternoon, perched on the crest of the hill, I spotted something moving in the west. As I held up a hand to shield my eyes, a shape seemed to flutter indistinctly against the brightness. High summer was a period of occasional mirage and daytime swelter; I blinked, settling the vision. It was a human figure.

Alerted, I slid from my post on a boulder into the shadows. I was frightened at the idea that it might be him and at the reverse—that it might be an even less familiar stranger. And so it proved: the second man charged forward with short, electrical jolts. His progress made me think with a start of Hammett, who had bristled with energy. This man was dressed all wrong for the climate, with heavy layers, some of them already shed and flung over one shoulder. Although the moustache gave the fellow a slightly comic appearance, like a cowboy in a spaghetti western, an authentic malevolence rolled off him. This, too, conjured my former husband, at least as he was in our final months together. For some moments I felt unmoored and dizzy-headed, until I managed to convince myself that this was someone entirely unknown to me.

The landscape seemed resistant to him, or perhaps he had picked a fight with the world; his arms punched through the atmosphere like a boxer’s. He appeared to grip a weapon in one hand, but whether a gun or some other instrument, I couldn’t tell. I slipped behind a tree, gathering my dress in a bunch at my knees so that it would not billow out and betray me. He paused, his head lifting as if he were scenting the wind, and then loped up and down the stream like a dog, bending to touch the stone where I had sat while my hair was combed. When he snatched something from a patch of weeds, I gasped, sure it was a snarl of my hair. The find must have meant nothing to him, whatever it was, because he jerked his hand outward, casting it away. I remained hiding behind the trunk of the tree until he had been gone for many minutes. Venturing to the rock, I surveyed the trees and meadow.

I might have stayed there until dark, unsure whether I could safely depart, if the stranger with the comb had not come along. He appeared to the west, traveling on foot easily and quickly. Perhaps he caught sight of me as he crossed a low ridge and passed into the valley; his face was turned toward mine. I felt a compulsion to warn him about the other man.

The slope sped my feet; the white dress flew behind me as I spilled out of the woods, racing through the meadow of thyme and wildflowers—I almost collided with him. When he reached an arm to catch me, I blurted out the story, what there was of it. He didn’t seem in the least surprised.

“And what’s your name? Where have you been?”

He looked around before answering. There wasn’t a streak of haze, the view so clear that from the hill-top above I had seen the dots of people moving near a distant clump of farmhouse and outbuildings.

“Far away.” He looked serious, adding, “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself. And Flyn,” he told me; “the name is Flyn. Yours is Penelope. Penelope Ophie. Your maiden name, that is.” He gave me the merest quirk of a smile. “You knew that, of course.”

I was alarmed, wondering how he could know such a thing about me. A thin gold necklace that I had worn when I was a little girl, with Penny in cursive, floated up from memory.

“How do you—”

“I followed you, last time, to make sure you got home all right. And I spoke to one of your neighbors, an old lady with her hair in a twist—or she talked to me—and she told me your name—”

“And probably the story of my life, as she sees it,” I said, indignant. So that was how! He would know everything about me, I supposed, including the way the locals were nosing around, checking for any signs of deviation from the norm of Fincastle sanity.

“Yes,” he said; “But I wasn’t trying to spy. She pinned me to the sidewalk and told me more than I needed to know. She’s worried, I’d guess.”

I felt in my pocket for the comb. Pressing a fingertip against the teeth and the shapes of the petals had become a habit.

“Here, let me.” He took the comb from my hand and began sliding it through my hair. “You’ve got hair like a sea to drown in.”

Half-excited and half-afraid because he had followed me home, I stood passively, letting the teeth sink through my hair. He would have seen my cottage with the stone foundation and the cherry next to the porch, the hibiscus blooming in the side yard. Mrs. Beklace would’ve told him about my—about what had happened to me and what a shame it had been and how I had taken on. She couldn’t have helped herself.

“Flyn,” I whispered.

“Don’t worry. I think my own thoughts.”

He was combing my hair in long, dreamy strokes, and I had the sense once again that it had grown wildly of late—that it was even now striving to match the sweep of his motion. I put my hand out and touched him on the arm, a bit timidly, because just then he seemed foreign—so peculiar in his first approach to me, so striking in his coloring and height. How incongruous he must have appeared, bending to catch Mrs. Beklace’s gossip! My face felt flushed and hot from the rush down the hill, but he seemed cool, and as if he was enjoying the sensation of his arm gliding along my hair. And it was longer then before. Maybe the waves had loosened, uncrinkling in the dry warmth of the day.

I wanted to know plain and simple things: Who are you? Where do you live, where do you come from? What do you do for a living? These are the sorts of questions that people ask. But I couldn’t bring myself to say them.

When I touched his sleeve, he glanced at me, then gave a little crooked smile before bending to kiss me, one arm pressing me close while the other went on, stroking through my hair.

In one lifetime, there must be only a scattering of memorable kisses. Perhaps most are forgotten, except as they are recalled by an unusual setting or time: a kiss after a return from battle, a kiss by a waterfall under the moon, a single star-crossed kiss from the person for whom one was intended from the foundation of the worlds—one kiss, but no more after.

His skin gave off heat, and where our bodies touched, I felt something that I had never known before: my blood vessels and nerves seemed to have leaped to his. When he leaned away, I felt a sense of deprivation different from anything I had ever felt before. All I wanted was to press against him, to be taken into him. I suppose that sounds strange. I have to remind myself how very little I knew of Flyn—that what I wanted was to let a man I’d barely met thresh away my clothes until I lay naked under the shadow of the trees.

“No.” He gathered the sheaf of my hair and tugged. “Come on. He’s coming back. I have a feeling that I don’t like—”

We jumped the stream and took cover in the woods below.

“Can you go home by yourself?” His eyes were no longer on me but on the high ground.

“Yes, of course, but—”

“Then go.”

I turned my face away, not wanting to be rejected; I’d had enough of that.

“Wait. Here.” He thrust the comb into my pocket, and I shut my hand over it, feeling the faint trembling life in it subside.

“And this, too.” He took a chain from his neck and looped it around mine.

“What’s that?”

“Keep it, in case I don’t see you for a while. Inside your dress, so no one spies it. Maybe I’ll give it to you properly, another time.”

He ventured into the clearing and stared at the horizon and tree line before subsiding back into the shade.

“What do you mean, in case you don’t see me? I want you to come home with—”

“I want to see you as well; it’s not that. Just hard to explain.”

In the dark under the trees we kissed again.

“Go on.” He pushed me away.

Dusk was drifting over the slope, and sunset gashed the twilight above the crown of the highest hill. I must have paused for a backward glance a dozen times, even though I couldn’t see him through the trees. Gold and crimson gouges lingered in the sky. Once I reached the grassy path across the fields, I ran most of the way to town. It was a bright moonlit evening; I hoisted my skirts and raced along the sidewalk toward home, startling Mrs. Beklace, out with her terrier. I gave them a moonstruck smile and laughed as she exclaimed that I had given her “such a fright!” Inside the cottage, I switched on all the lamps. In the mirror my hair fell past my waist. I stared at my flushed reflection for a long time, sure that I had subtly changed during the day. After a while, I sat down on the unmade bed and began combing. It made me sleepy, I noticed, and once I felt half frightened by a tickling sensation in my scalp.

At midnight, I was awakened by a spatter of pebbles striking the window. I glimpsed Flyn’s face, the forehead and cheekbone scored by an ugly slash. He wouldn’t come in, wouldn’t let me come out.

“It’s all right. It’s not the first time,” he whispered. “I have certain—enemies, here and—elsewhere. We’ve gone on this way for eons—”

“Let me help you,” I urged.

Yet I did what he asked and handed out a package of gauze and some ointment, begging him to come inside all the while. I was shameless, but our hands barely touched; he vanished into the dark.

* * *

Mechanically I picked up the comb and comforted myself, drawing the teeth through my hair until I fell asleep, sprawled on the tumble of bedding. In the morning the lamps were still burning. I walked through the six rooms of my house, clicking off switches.

On the slope and valley that morning, there wasn’t the least evidence of Flyn or of the other man. I had expected something: blood drops on the grass, a corpse, a weapon. I wouldn’t have been startled by anything in the shape of a blunt instrument, but there was nothing to cause surprise.

The afternoon crawled by, and the next—a swath of days, each warm and sunny and empty. I no longer thought about my former husband at all, except to wonder what I had ever seen in him. I had somehow mixed up Hammett with the second stranger. The image of Flyn burned in my thoughts and would not go out. One afternoon I curled up on a sweet-smelling bank of thyme and, like a person enchanted, thought only about him. I didn’t plan to leave for home until the first tinge of rose appeared over the hill, and even then I refused to go without a final willing of him to appear.

“Flyn, Flyn, Flyn—”

The name rebounded from the slopes, seeding the air with clamor. Against the sunset, I made out a wavering darkness: it solidified and slid across the field of pink.

I wasn’t sure what I had seen. Remembering how the other man had scored Flyn’s face, I retreated toward the forest while the sky darkened past cobalt. Near the stream I paused, as gripped by the nocturnal songs of katydids and peepers as I had once been by an unnatural quiet. A nightjar cried out as she swept past and away . . . bats were flittering overhead, hunting for mosquitoes, and the wind made a rushing noise in the tree-tops.

It must have been the breeze that flung away my fear. I didn’t stir. My white dress glowed, a beacon showing where I had stopped to listen to the chorus of night.

“Hush. It’s me.” Flyn’s hand found mine. “Anybody else about? You brought the comb?”

Gladness flashed through me. For that instant, I felt my nerves turning to light, and thought: I am a branch of gold.

“I always have it.” The words trembled on the air. It was true. My skin had even begun to take on the fragrance of the wood. “And there’s just the two of us.”

“Here. Kneel down.” He had dropped to his knees and, as I soon saw, was making a hurried tepee from lint and sticks and shreds of bark. “I want the sun,” he murmured. He fished in his pockets for what proved to be a flint stone and a small C-shaped bar of steel. Hurriedly striking sparks, he nursed the fire until it illumined our hands and faces.

“I’ve never seen anyone do that so quickly—”

“Around your neck—the necklace—do you still have it?”

I fished the string from inside my dress. I had examined the disk repeatedly but could not detect anything through the hard red wax stamped with an image of two trees. Though tempted, I had left it alone.

Flyn heated the covering in the flames until it was soft and could be easily stripped away.

“It’s too soon, but I can’t help that. I don’t have the time.” He showed me a pair of rings glinting on his palm. A streak of the coating clung to his skin. “For my family, rings like these have been the sign of union for hundreds of years. Will you take one? Wear it?”

I could have said no.

Yet I could no more have uttered the word no than flown to the top of the ash tree at the peak of the hill. Where did he come from? And did he intend to use a ring in the same manner that Hammett had done? I didn’t ask.

“What are the letters? It’s not English, not any language I recognize.” I picked up the smaller of the two and held it close to the firelight. It was surprising how much writing could fit on the inside of a band.

“That is the binding. In the old, almost forgotten tongue.”

“But what is it?”

“The binding is—is binding.” He stared at the darkness. Light flickering on his cheek made his skin look like the smooth surface of a statue, cast in gold. “Not like other promises. It calls on seven names of God and the corners of the universe and the elements of creation, on the hoop of time and the word that began the world. It is indissoluble. It says that we can’t be parted, even if we are very far apart.”

“I hardly know—”

I broke off. It was no use to say that I hardly knew him. No, I wouldn’t wish for more time, a proper courtship, the perfect moment. I knew that I would let him put the ring on my finger, whatever it meant, if he asked again. The yielding was in me like a desire for annihilation, just as I wanted him to render me to nothing—to dissolve my body into his—by the touch of his hands. “But I don’t understand the words.”

“It doesn’t matter. They’ll bind all the same.” He reached as if to take hold of my hair, and then drew back. “Only the willingness matters.”

“Will it hurt me? Will I be sorry?”

“Sometimes, I suppose,” he said; “Is there anything unalloyed? You will be as good as your name, often waiting. My business will call me elsewhere. You’ll come to have purposes apart from mine.”

“Good as my name—like Penelope with Ulysses, you mean? Penelope with her tapestries? There was a child. A boy, wasn’t it?”

“Things appear in patterns,” he said, though the words remained oblique to me. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t different. It’s just the nature of lives. There are only so many ways to arrange them. It’s the same way with me and the man you saw—as old as Cain and Abel, I suppose.”

It was an odd way to answer. He was looking away from me, but when I spoke his name, he turned.

“Will you wear it?”

I nodded, feeling that the ground under me was the lip of an abyss that I could neither fathom nor resist.

The metal was neither yellow gold nor silver. It appeared lustrous, rather like white gold, though the color shifted by the shimmer of firelight. When he slid it home, the band chilled me but in an instant became warm. Until then, I had been alarmed, my fingers trembling so visibly that Flyn had taken my hand between his. I imagined the intricate, tiny words inside the ring slipping through the pores of my skin and flying through the chambers of my heart.

“Now put the other on me.”

When I hesitated, he added, “One can’t be worn without the other.” In each of the rings a twist in the metal made the shape into a Möbius band. I picked up the one remaining and looked through it at the flames.

“Infinite.” I hardly knew that I had spoken when he nodded and held out his hand. Though I expected that the ring would never pass the second knuckle, it easily nestled into place.

“Is that all?” If this was a ceremony of marriage, it seemed as crude as a pair of Puritans jumping over a broomstick.

“Simple, isn’t it? Just a circle, like a wheel or the face of a clock.” He scattered the fire with his bare fingers, sparks flashing around the ring.

“I don’t know.” The unaccustomed weight made me uneasy, and I ran a finger over the twist in the metal.

“There’s one thing I need to tell you. After tonight, I may not see you for a while. I can’t help it. That’s why I wanted this to happen now—”

“How long?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” He tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “Until your hair touches your knees, perhaps. A good long time.”

“I’ll use the comb.”

Yes. Use the comb. That will pass the time.”

* * *

I watched him, fearful that I had done something transgressive, though it did not feel wrong. Flyn reached for my fingers. I felt the same sense of nervous conjunction with his body, worse than before. When he was absent, would the branches of my blood flow in me and elsewhere, joining us in secret?

Just as the sunset was shut out by bars of cloud, a fine rain fell. Afterward the fireflies came out, and the stars. I don’t know where we wandered, for I was quickly lost. We seemed to go a long way in the forest, stopping now and then to press close. Again I felt that our blood and nerves made a single circuit. In time we came to a small pavilion. Pavilion may seem a strange choice of word, but I can’t think what else to call the roofless place where we made our strange, potent love under the moon. The surge and crest of wanting seemed nothing like anything I had known before: akin to the ocean in depth and mystery and tidal force.

Afterward I would sleep at his side like a shell tossed to the beach, and then wake as the tide wakes, mounting toward the crash of rollers that hurls the seaweed and crystal onto the shore. The silver walls rose up, broken by arches. As the night wore on, they became more and more distinct, as if tugged into being by the moon. When Flyn fell asleep, I stepped to an archway and looked out to see what appeared to be the same stream and the hillside where we had begun, so that our travels through the night seemed also like the pattern of a ring. Once I dreamed as I had never dreamed before: I was a harp, and he the harper; I was the sea, and he a drowned sailor; I was a red tree under three blue moons, and he a bird that cried the name of dawn from my branches as a star rose over the world’s edge. We slept and woke a thousand times until the rope of sheets hung from the bed, soaked with salt.

“If there’s a child,” he told me, “don’t call him by name—don’t christen him until I see his face.”

I knew Flyn in the most ancient sense of the word: knew every inch of his body, the hardness of his chest, the long bones of the legs, the planes of the face, the whorl of hair near the crown of the head. His words became familiar, and his gestures. He liked to laugh; I hadn’t thought that he would be so playful. Hours and hours fled while he combed my hair, the two of us sitting in the bed with the hair spilling across us. If I close my eyes, I can feel the stroke of the comb. I picture his gold body and my white one, with the ravel of red sprangling over us.

In that first passion, it never occurred to me to question him, and even now I know that part of what I love in him is a mystery. Since then I have thought about how the Nephilim flew out of eternity to mate with “the daughters of men,” according to Genesis. I’ve pondered the medieval and dark age evidence for the northern aelfes, friends to mortals. I’ve lain in a sea of pennyroyal, reading about the People of the Faery Hills. When the wind bedevils the fallen leaves, it means the Sidhe are riding by. Like the White Queen, the figure of Time himself is said to run and to stand still, all at once, under their mounds. There it’s the stroke of midnight at the end of December, when the Old Year and the Infant Year are one quivering self. With the comb in my hand, I have a feel for that stopped quickness where one can go clockwise and widdershins at the same time.

Alone in my bed, I’ve sifted Eros and Psyche, Penelope and Ulysses, the two trees of Baucis and Philemon. Endless romances impinge on mine. I’ve dreamed of a green couch in a house of earth, with beams that are cedars and rafters that are pines. I’ve dreamed a manse on fire, a flooded chamber. When I’ve wakened in the night, I’ve imagined other worlds, distant or overlapping with our own. I’ve studied the permutations in the patterns of human stories, said to be limited to nine.

I’ve even feared that only the first meeting happened, and all since has been the work of the comb. Yet I keep combing . . .

A thousand wild surmises have swept into my thoughts. I have let all of them go.

* * *

Whoever wanted a mystery to be unknotted and fully known was mad, and I am sane. Facing it is like stumbling on a grimy, tallow-flecked masterpiece, still alive with the spirit of the dead—the brushstrokes of a moving hand, the captured forms of mortals—evidence and riddle. Or perhaps it is like a story that will not give up its last secret but insists on strangeness.

The vow and the seven names are still pressed against my skin. Our night, like the ring, seemed infinite.

Yet the moment came when I found myself cold on the hillside, dew sprinkled on my nakedness. I had to face the absence of my lover. Then I felt dismay: not that the night had been a dream, for that would be too simple. I feared madness in the vow, feared that I might have jeopardized my very soul in some obscure manner yet to be revealed, feared even that I had bound myself to some white shadow of my former husband—his opposite, his mysteriously-conceived other.

Shivering, I washed my face in the brook and pulled on my dress. The comb lay in the grass, waiting for my hand. I made my way home. What else was there to do?

Forebodings passed, and I began to miss Flyn.

After a few weeks, when I realized that there would, indeed, be a child, I sold my cottage in Fincastle and bought twenty acres of land, including the hillside and valley where we first met. The purchase took much of what I had—cash from the sale, plus an inheritance from my mother—but I had enough left over to live modestly and to pay our local masons for constructing a one-room cottage with arched windows and a stone porch overlooking the stream. Each afternoon I walked from rented rooms stacked with cartons to the valley, watching the progress of the builders. I made amends to Mrs. Beklace and the rector and other neighbors who had cared about me and wished me well. A month ago the house was finished. Already pennyroyal is colonizing the scarred ground beside the porch, and wind flings the odor of thyme through the screens.

The comb stays in or near my hand all day long, and every night I slide its teeth through my hair until I fall asleep. Not a single elf-lock mars the strokes. It makes the time pass, I remind myself. The infant in my belly stops his kicking when I comb. I sing so he’ll know my voice when he is born; I remember that my lover said “him,” and I believe that the baby will be a boy. Any day now I’ll look into his eyes and hold him in my arms. When Flyn sees the face of our child, we’ll choose a name.

Ripples of hair can almost tickle my knees.

The time draws near.

Like a night-blooming cereus, a new purpose is budding in the dark, waiting to startle me with its blossom. Seasons alter the landscape, and one day seems to whisper secrets to the next. Twice I’ve seen the violent man lurking in the trees, watching for Flyn to step into the valley, and once I spied a riderless horse, spangled with moonlight, flying along the stream. If I wake in the night, the arches of the windows look faintly silver, and the stream is silver, too, and all waiting seems about to end.

Until the hour comes, I rest easy in what I don’t know. Some day I’ll ask this second husband—stranger to whom I have promised myself—to tell me the seven names and the vow.

I am becoming all longing, like a voice prisoned in a shell, but soon I will be changed—as joyous as a tide that hurls treasure to the sands. Something is turning in me, a child and a desire.

On the hills, trees are green that in winter threw patterns of veins onto the sky. Eternity is wrapped around my finger. Breezes whirl in my house of windows, steeping the air with thyme. I am waiting, waiting: will I break into blossom? am I about to be born?

The comb drips its honey into my hair.

All the world is a mystery.

Marly Youmans is the author of seven books: Valorson, a limited edition novella from P. S. Publishing (U.K.), forthcoming in 2008; three novels, The Wolf Pit (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2001), Catherwood (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1996), and Little Jordan (David R. Godine, Publisher, 1995); a collection of poetry, Claire (Louisiana State University, 2003); and two very Southern fantasies, Ingledove (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005) and The Curse of the Raven Mocker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003). Her awards are The Michael Shaara Award for The Wolf Pit, two Hoepfner awards for short fiction, and others. A native of the Carolinas, she lives in Cooperstown, New York.

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